Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

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A blanket of snow turned Queenstown into a winter wonderland. Photo / Otago Daily Times
A blanket of snow turned Queenstown into a winter wonderland. Photo / Otago Daily Times

MetService has cancelled its thunderstorm warning however a watch remains in place for most of the west of New Zealand, as one of the biggest storms of the year lashes the country.

A nasty front packing thunderstorms and gales that prompted a severe weather warning along the entire west coast of the South Island last night was expected to move northward this morning, bringing with it the risk of quick-fire tornados similar to those that ravaged Waikanae on Saturday.

Snow blanketed Queenstown yesterday and was forecast to spread to other parts of the South Island, with many alpine roads likely to be closed and heavy snowfalls possible in Fiordland and southern Westland.

Thunderstorm warning cancelled

MetService has lifted its thunderstorm warning which applied to much of the southwest of the North Island this morning.

Forecaster Chris Noble said a severe thunderstorm watch remains in place for western areas from Taranaki down to Kapiti Coast, and also all of the west of the South Island.

"There are still a number of thunderstorms around, but the stronger of those that were moving into Kapiti that had a warning on them have been lifted," Mr Noble said.

"We've had quite a few thunderstorms spreading in off the sea into areas between about Paraparaumu up to Levin, with bands of heavy rain and squally wind gusts. We haven't heard of any specific problems with these thunderstorms."

A Fire Service Central Communications spokesman said there had been no major weather-related callouts overnight or this morning, with a only few reports of downed power and trampolines which had been picked up in the wind.

Police are advising extreme caution when travelling over the Rimutaka Hill Road (State Highway 2) this morning, as high winds and strong gusts have been reported in the area, however the road remains open.

Mr Noble said there remain a few thunderstorms around the New Plymouth area and also coast parts of Waitomo.

"We've got a front which is pretty much across the Marlborough Sounds, through central New Zealand at the moment, and that front sweeps up over the North Island this afternoon and evening and should cross the Auckland area tonight. That front is preceded by these busts of heavy rain and thunderstorms and fairly strong gusty northwesterlies as well."

Mr Noble said southern parts of Auckland have already had showers, but expected the rain to get heavier in the city, with thunderstorms possible, later in the day.

Weatherwatch.co.nz head weather analyst Philip Duncan compared the front to a horror storm last September that produced tornados, cut power to thousands of residents, closed roads and caused widespread damage.

He said the risk of tornados would rise during the day as the front moves north, and Auckland would have an increased risk by this afternoon or evening and into tomorrow.

Other western areas from Fiordland to Waikato would have a similar tornado risk beginning earlier.

Mr Duncan said that while the odds of a tornado hitting homes was low, he urged residents to stay calm and indoors if one did.

"They should get into a small room or a hallway in their house and wait for it to pass, because they pass very quickly."

Mr Duncan also said boaties should put outings off for the week, because monster swells of up to 8m were expected to make conditions perilous for smaller craft.

"We're also expecting major wind and waves, so we're also asking people not to go fishing off the rocks as it's a recipe for disaster," he said.

In Auckland, the Transport Agency said it would have extra maintenance crews on standby and would not hesitate to close the harbour bridge if the conditions became unsafe.

"We would urge people to drive with care and leave a little bit more time for journeys," state highways manager Tommy Parker said.

Snow for Southland

Mr Noble said the foul weather is expected to stick around for several days.

"We've had these unsettled westerlies since about Thursday last week and the weather has been a bit up and down as fronts have raced through. It looks set to continue tomorrow and Wednesday ... as we go through to the end of the week, Thursday, Friday, the flow starts to turn a little more southerly over the country, so it will get colder, but we do have a high coming into the Tasman Sea, so hopefully we will see a easing trend by the end of the week."

Snow is forecast to fall to low levels over the lower South Island and is likely to close many alpine roads between today and Wednesday and heavy snowfalls are possible in Fiordland and southern Westland.

Mr Noble said the snowfalls are expected to continue for the next couple of days.

The Queenstown region received a healthy dump of the white stuff over the weekend, with snow blanketing the town itself.

Coronet Peak ski area manager Hamish McCrostie, who last night was helping to get skiers off the mountain, said 20cm of snow fell overnight on Saturday and the same amount was expected last night.

Skifield operators who had earlier been starved of snow were delighted with the fall, Mr McCrostie said.

"We've gone from famine to feast."

Harley Aitken, manager of Queenstown's Bathhouse Cafe and Restaurant, said the town appeared "very beautiful" under its new white coat.

"The town has picked up and I think everyone's pretty happy - it looks like a wee winter wonderland."

State Highway 94 from Te Anau to Milford Road is closed this morning due to snow, while chains are essential and towing vehicles prohibited from SH8 Omarama to Tarras (Lindis Pass), SH6 Haast to Makarora (Haast Pass), Springfield to Arthurs Pass (Porters Pass) and Arthurs Pass to Otira.

Drivers are are advised to be cautious on SH6 from Kingston to Five Rivers due to ice on the road.

Clean up in Waikanae

Elsewhere yesterday, tornado-struck Waikanae residents were banding together for a clean-up in the aftermath of a twister that injured dozens of people, trashed houses and sent trees, debris and cars flying through the air.

Linda Gibson, whose husband Peter was thrown 6m through the air and over a bank, said neighbours were helping one another to clear driveways of felled branches and debris.

Huia St resident Martin Devlin said two homes remained seriously damaged in his street - one had been struck by a fallen pine tree and the other by a "flying" shed.

The twister's 200m-wide path of destruction was clearly visible, attracting hundreds of curious sightseers.

STORM OF THE YEAR

What WeatherWatch is predicting from today:

* Risk of tornados

* Hail

* Heavy downpours

* Severe thunderstorms

* Squalls

* Gale-force winds

* Low-level snow in the lower south

* Monster swells

Severe MetService weather warnings issued already for today:

* Heavy rain: Westland, Fiordland, the ranges of Buller and Nelson, Tararua Range, Mt Taranaki and hill country from inland Taranaki to Tongariro National Park.

*Strong winds: Southland, Clutha, Otago, Canterbury, Nelson, Marlborough, Wellington, Wairarapa, Taranaki, Central Plateau, Wanganui, Manawatu, Gisborne, Hawkes Bay.

*Heavy snow: Fiordland and Westland south of the glaciers.

- NZ Herald

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